Today, it is hard to imagine Zionism had any other goal than the creation of a Jewish state. But up until 1942, with the adoption of the “Biltmore Program,” despite Theodor Herzl’s essay, the Basel formula, the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate for Palestine, for many Zionists this was very much in doubt.
For the cultural Zionists, the goal of Zionism was to create a spiritual center for World Jewry. Labor Zionists saw in Zionism the task of creating of an exemplary socialist society. Thus, for the majority of Zionists the Jewish settlement in Palestine could be developed gradually, even under severe Turkish and later British restrictions and even without protection from violent opposition.
Herzl’s innovation had been seeking Jewish statehood itself – not in some distant possible future, but in the near future, via an internationally recognized charter, which would allow the Jewish people to purchase land, to settle it and most importantly, to immigrate freely to Palestine.
This was because the “Jewish question” which Herzl sought to solve with Zionism was not merely how to deal with the awkward status of world Jewry or ensure their cultural or spiritual survival, though these were important to him. Instead he was responding to the grave physical danger facing Jewry, many of whom, Herzl said, were “outlawed” human beings.
At no time was Herzl’s apprehension over the fate of Jewry more apparent than at the Sixth (“Uganda”) Zionist Congress.
His diplomatic initiatives vis-à-vis the German kaiser, the Ottoman sultan, and then the British regarding El Arish had gained the Zionist movement recognition, but practically had all come to a dead end.
Then came the news of the massacre at Kishinev as well as the British offer for an autonomous region of East Africa. The dynamism fueling Zionism was in jeopardy and Russian Jewry was on the verge.
But now a night shelter could be provided.
At the Congress, Herzl pleaded with his fellow Zionists, “Let us save those who can still be saved!” Similar sentiments were shared by Max Nordau and Herzl’s other allies and are found in Herzl’s letters and his diaries.
“Will they expel us? Will they murder us?” he wrote, “I anticipate all of these things and more.”
Such notions would come to be termed “catastrophic Zionism,” a demeaning label aimed at belittling those who espoused it as fear-mongering demagogues.
It was an extremism shunned by the gradualists, who saw no point in opposing British limitations on Jewish immigration to Palestine ostensibly based on the country’s “absorptive capacity.”
With successive Nazi election victories in Germany and mounting persecution of Jews elsewhere, Jewish immigration to Palestine swelled in 1935, reaching just under 62,000 legal immigrants. Palestine’s economic development boomed as a result, proving the fallacy of the “absorptive capacity” excuse. Yet due to Arab violence, restrictions on Jewish immigration were increased.
Despite the growing evidence of the looming catastrophe for European Jewry and British readiness to shut down the creation of the Jewish national refuge, the Zionist movement would not wake from its slumber. “Cooperation” with Britain remained the “cornerstone” of Chaim Weizmann’s policy and gradual development even under severe restrictions on immigration and land acquisition remained the faith of his Labor backers.
Even in 1937, Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion protested, in testimony to the Palestine Royal (“Peel”) Commission, that the creation of a Jewish majority in the country and Jewish statehood were not the goals of Zionism – as that would allegedly mean ruling over the non-Jewish population. That stance precluded any attempt at mass immigration which would have both created a Jewish majority and saved hundreds of thousands of Jews. In a display of his statesman-like reasonableness, Weizmann told the Commission that he could accept the fact that only two million European Jews, the young and the fit, could eventually be brought to Palestine.
By the time of the Peel Commission’s investigation, however, the Revisionist- Zionist movement had seceded from the Zionist movement, arguably with greater support from the masses than the Zionist movement. Jabotinsky, another primary spokesperson for the Jewish cause before the Commission, was free to present the Jewish case without toeing the official line.
“[I]t is quite understandable that the Arabs of Palestine would also prefer Palestine to be the Arab State No. 4, No. 5 or No. 6,” Jabotinsky said, “but when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation.”
As early as 1932, Jabotinsky had made “catastrophic Zionism” the center of the Revisionist-Zionist program – because the catastrophe was coming. He exhorted European Jews to “learn to shoot,” warned them of the “beast” about to awaken, the approaching “St.
Bartholomew’s night,” that it was the “eleventh hour,” and begged "each one save his life while there is still time.” In 1937, he called for a program of evacuating hundreds of thousands of Jews to Palestine in a few years, based on Nordau’s 1919 proposal.
This demand was rejected by the British and the Zionist movement.
But the Revisionists were not merely a parliamentary faction. Free from the “discipline” of the Zionist movement, Jabotinsky pursued an independent diplomacy with other eastern European countries seeking assistance in Jewish emigration and in pressuring Britain to allow Jews into Palestine.
In his article, “On Adventurism,” Jabotinsky called on the youth to learn the new “national sport” – illegally immigrating to Palestine. The New Zionist Organization, the Betar and the Irgun established an underground railroad to Palestine, with Jabotinsky’s (as well as his son, Eri’s) personal involvement, bringing to Palestine thousands of Jews by the start of the war.
Yitzchak Ben-Ami, an Irgun veteran provides a personal account of the “Af Al Pi” (despite it all) or “Ha’apalah” (ascension) rescue efforts in his memoir, Days of Wrath, Years of Glory.
Ben-Ami was sent by the Irgun in 1937 to Europe, spending eight months in Nazi-occupied countries organizing illegal immigration, gathering groups of Jews seeking to escape the continent and transporting them over dangerous routes to Palestine on boats like the Artemesia, the Melk or the Draga.
In 1939, Ben-Ami was sent to the United States to raise funds to facilitate the illegal immigration work. Though the clock had already struck 12, he recounts how he and his fellow Revisionists’ work was undermined by Zionist leaders who claimed the Revisionists were bringing criminals and prostitutes to Palestine on dangerous routes with unseaworthy vessels.
The Haganah was already doing all that was necessary, they claimed.
After consulting the Zionist Archives, however, Ben-Ami reports that from July 1934 to mid-1940, the Haganah and the rest of the World Zionist Organization brought only 6200 illegal immigrants, whereas “[d]uring that same period, we moved about twice that many ma’apilim with hardly any financial means whatsoever.”
Howard Sachar puts the Revisionists’ tally at 15,000. Others place it as high as 18,000.
After the fall of Poland – the support base for the Revisionist movement – Jabotinsky was forced to shift the center of the movement’s activities to the United States. There the Revisionists not only raised funds for illegal immigration, but agitated for the creation of a Jewish army and US involvement in the war (“The Yanks are coming!” Jabotinsky declared before a packed audience at Madison Square Garden).
After Jabotinsky’s death and the revelation of the extent of the annihilation, one of Ben-Ami’s Irgun comrades, Hillel Kook, under the name Peter Bergson, led a clique of Irgunists (now called the “Bergson group”) to focus on pressuring the US government to undertake rescue efforts.
A concise summary of the Bergon group’s efforts is provided in A Race Against Death by David Wyman and Rafael Medoff, who tell how, with fullpage ads in The New York Times, marches, pageants, and copy written by Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, the group shattered the wall of silence surrounding the fate of European Jewry.
Through these efforts, which were opposed by established Jewish leaders, in November 1943, the US Senate approved a resolution calling for the establishment of a “Presidential Commission to Save the Jewish People of Europe.” Three months later a reluctant Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board. Even at that late stage, the Board is reported to have funded and overseen rescue operations for 200,000 European Jews.
(Another book by Medoff, Militant Zionism in America, provides a more complete history of the Revisionist Zionist movement in the US).
Despite the murder of practically their entire support base, opposition and downright demonization from the Jewish establishment, and with little to no funds, the Revisionists could boast impressive achievements. While others wavered, their rescue efforts saved thousands of lives and their political efforts led to the salvation of hundreds of thousands more.
Yet these were nothing compared to what was lost. Herzl and Jabotinsky's confidence in the rise of the Jewish state would be vindicated. It even arrived within the timeframes they predicted. But the clock had already run out. “Revisionist” Zionism, “catastrophic” Zionism, or “political” Zionism – by whatever name – had failed.
This is part II in a series on a “Revisionist” History of Zionism.
The author is a Likud Central Committee member and an attorney.
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